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Leading Norwich plant scientists call for action to mitigate food crisis

21 October 2022

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An interdisciplinary group of international experts have published guidance for important actions to be taken now by governments and investors to help mitigate impending food security risks and to stabilise wheat supplies exacerbated by the Russia-Ukraine conflict, while transitioning towards long-term resilience in the agrifood system.

Prof Sophien Kamoun of The Sainsbury Laboratory and Prof Diane Saunders from the John Innes Centre at Norwich Research Park, are experts in plant health research and have been working on the guidance with scientists from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and other partners.

The outcome of their collaboration is a set of proposals for practical actions to respond to the looming global food crisis we are facing that coincides with World Food Day on Sunday, October 16.

More than 2.5bn people worldwide consume wheat-based foods, with some of the world’s poorest countries relying heavily on wheat from Russia and Ukraine.

The dominance of wheat exports from a small number of countries places inherent vulnerabilities on the global food system. This is exacerbated by the intensifying threats from climatic instability on wheat export potential due to heat, drought, heavy rains plus the increasing prevalence of diseases such as wheat yellow rust.

It is hoped that the published guidance, split into short, medium and longer term priorities, will ultimately lead to a more resilient global agrifood system.

Short term – mitigate the immediate crisis 

The first priority, according to the scientists, is to mitigate the immediate crisis by boosting wheat production. It also suggests blending wheat flour with other low-cost cereals. Bundled agronomic and breeding improvements coupled with sustainable farming practices can reduce the dependence on imported grain and fertiliser, while coordinated policies need to be introduced across the globe to help conserve grain stocks for human consumption and avert trade restrictions.

Prof Kamoun, said: “Current events are reshaping trade routes for major commodities like wheat. By shifting trade routes, there is a higher risk of introducing new crop diseases as countries may not have the capacity to detect these new threats. This would need new sources of short-term wheat supply to be de-risked.

“Contaminated seed is a considerable risk to wheat yield as illustrated by the introduction of wheat blast from Brazil to Southeast Asia in 2016, which caused devastating outbreaks and immense losses in wheat yield.”

Medium term – increase the resilience of wheat supply 

The analysis emphasised the need to increase the local, regional and global resilience of wheat supply. It suggests this can be achieved by expanding production within agro-ecological boundaries, supporting national wheat self-sufficiency, providing technical assistance to increase the production of high-yielding, disease-resistant wheat, and to introduce a global-wide approach for pest and disease monitoring.

Such an approach would need to include a global, inter-connected pathogen surveillance system for major food crops to curb the spread of newly-introduced diseases. There are already examples that have employed artificial intelligence (AI), cloud computing and satellite data to make a big difference in pest and pathogen mitigation and control.

Prof Kamoun suggests that a genomics-based system for surveillance of threats in wheat seed exports could be implemented at a country’s point of entry based on PCR testing and sequencing, mirroring the established Covid-19 PCR testing protocol for international travel.

Professor Diane Saunders, whose group at the John Innes Centre developed the MARPLE diagnostic method for rapid detection and surveillance of the devastating wheat rust fungi, said: “We have already seen the transformative nature of enhancing accessibility to genomic-based approaches for near real-time disease diagnostics such as with the deployment of MARPLE in East Africa and South Asia.

“We need to expand the reach of such genomic-based diagnostic tools and integrate them into a global surveillance system to increase the resilience of wheat in this time of crisis.”

Longer term – transition to system-level resilience 

To reach crucially-needed resilience in the world’s agrifood system in the long term, the measures proposed encompass agro-ecosystem diversity, addressing gender disparities in agriculture and rural communities and sustaining increased investment in a holistic, agrifood transition.

“The Russia-Ukraine conflict will impact global food security over months, if not years,” said Alison Bentley, lead author and global wheat programme director of CIMMYT, said: “We now need to move beyond defining the problem to implementing practical actions to ensure a stable food supply, safeguard the livelihoods of millions of vulnerable people and bring resilience to our global agrifood system.”

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